A/N Apologies for the ridiculously long delay in posting this. I had really ground to a halt with this story but I have managed to get this chapter together for you. Thank you for your continuing support with this story, I appreciate every review and PM I still receive even so long since I last posted.

I can't guarantee posts will be regular but I will get subsequent chapters up as often as I can.

Thank you again for your continuing faith. xx

The night was far from restful, Severus waking often with the residual pain from the Cruciatus curse however each time he woke Hermione was beside him and would ease him through the agony with a patience and gentleness that made each episode easier than the last. The pain finally settled and Severus was pulled into a far deeper slumber than he had enjoyed for over a month, knowing that for a time he could enjoy some measure of safety. It was the smell of coffee that roused him finally, a hand on his brow as he fought the pull of sleep that still kept a hold on him.

"Take your time," came Hermione's familiar voice, "There's no rush, its still early."

"What time?" he said, frowning at how scratchy his voice sounded.

"Barely nine," said Hermione, "Breakfast hasn't even started yet."

"You stayed all night?" he said, finally forcing his eyes open to see her sat on the bed still dressed in his shirt instead of her own clothes.

"I wasn't about to leave you when you were in such a mess," said Hermione, "Besides, it wasn't much of a contest; wake up alone in my room or wake up with you here. How are you feeling?"

"Like I did ten rounds with a cave troll," said Severus as she helped him to sit up against the pillows, the bruises across his body having darkened over night and leaving evidence of Voldemort's actions for anyone to see, "I need to move a little quicker next time."

"If I ever get my hands on that…"

"You get anywhere near Voldemort and you'll be running in the other direction, do you understand me?" said Severus cutting her off before she could voice her threats against the Dark Lord, "We've lied to Harry to stop him attempting any sort of vengeance, I don't expect you to be winding yourself up into a vendetta in his place."

Hermione smiled, "I doubt I'd ever follow them through but I am allowed to want to batter anyone whose hurt you, you know," she said, righting one of the bandages the covered one of the deeper cuts on his arm, "I hate seeing you hurt sweetheart."

"Seems I have a little nurse to aid me when I am though," he said taking her hand and pressing a kiss to the back of it, "I'm sorry if I disturbed your rest too much last night."

"I'm sure I'm quite used to you disturbing my nights," said Hermione releasing her hand from his and laying it over his heart, "Though maybe for another reason."

Severus' eyes fell closed as she moved her hand and pressed a kiss in its place, trailing her lips upwards to his throat.

"When you're recovered you can disturb all my nights if you want," she said.

"I'm an old man Miss Granger," said Severus, moving her face up to his, "I might not be able to keep up."

Hermione laughed, "You're not old Severus," she said, kissing him before she sighed, "And it'll probably be me dropping dead from exhaustion, I've got so much work with everything being accelerated but I'm enjoying it, without you work was all I had."

"You have your friends Hermione," said Severus, concern etching itself on his face, "Harry, Ron, Ginny, all our friends."

"Friends who I'm lying to," said Hermione, as her face fell, "Friends who cannot say a kind word about you. The only person I can be honest with is Dumbledore and I still hate him for what he did to you. He took you from me, took you from us and its not fair. Its not fair!"

"Hush," said Severus as she broke, gathering her to him as she wept, "Hermione don't cry."

"It's been so hard," said Hermione, her face pressed into her shoulder, "Sometimes I'm in class and I look up and it's almost a shock to see Ron or Harry next to me rather than you. I just want things to go back to the way they were. We were so happy."

Severus rocked her gently, whispering nonsense into the wild curls of her hair. He felt his heart breaking for the girl before him, the burden of the lies he had forced her to tell all too apparent in the tears she was letting only him see. He wanted to tell her that they would be alright, that the world would deal them a better hand if they waited but he would make no hollow promises, worried that her fragile state would be all the more damaged. He knew that every person within Hogwarts carried their own fears and troubles, Voldemort's return unavoidable and resonating throughout the wizarding world, but he knew that through him Hermione was carrying more than just her own fears. Not only did she worry for herself but for her Muggle parents, Harry whose destiny was still veiled to them all and now for him, hiding the truth while facing the pity of her friends for the story they knew.

He hated himself for leaving her to bear so much alone and a vicious little voice at the back of his mind told him that she would not be suffering half as much if she was not with him. He tightened his arms around her, pushing the voice away, refusing to acknowledge the thought of leaving her.

"Come on now darling," he said softly, "Where's that Gryffindor bravery?"

Hermione managed a weak laugh, "Fled I guess," she said, pulling back from him enough to roughly wipe her eyes, "I'm sorry."

Severus shook his head, "Don't you apologise for that," he said, rubbing at a tear stain with his thumb, "If you're going to cry, then you cry on my shoulder. That's what I'm for."

Hermione smiled, pressing her face into his hand, "I love you," she said.

"I love you too," said Severus, kissing her softly, "Now then, here's the plan. You need to be seen at breakfast and I need to speak to Albus. Go back to the common room and spend the morning with our friends, then after lunch come back down here. Do you have any homework?"

"A lot actually," said Hermione.

"Then bring it down," said Severus, "I have some lesson plans to work on and seeing as I'm not much use for anything else, we can at least spend the time together."

"At least you can help me with my real potions homework."

Severus laughed, "Indeed," he said before he released her from his arms, "You should go up before Harry starts hammering on your door."

Hermione slipped from the bed and dressed once more in her own clothes, folding Severus' shirt and laying it on the comforter before she moved around to his side of the bed. She righted his bandages once more before she kissed him.

"Make sure you have one of the elves bring you some breakfast," she said, "And get Dumbledore to come to you here. You'll heal quicker, the more you rest."

"Yes doctor," said Severus, sharing an indulgent smile with the girl before him, "I promise not to stir from these rooms without your permission."

"You'd better not," said Hermione, pulling the comforter up a little higher before she headed to the door, turning to blow him a kiss before she disappeared from view.

Severus waited until he heard the floo activate before he sighed, running his hands over his face. He reached for the shirt Hermione had worn and buried his face in it, breathing in the lingering scent that clung to it. His mind drew up images of the Room of Requirement; Hermione's fragrant hair spilling across the pillow as she slumbered beside him or the scent of her neck as he pressed his face into it as they both lay panting and sated, her body surrounding him and forcing itself upon every sense he had. The final thought left a bittersweet aftertaste and he reluctantly put the shirt away from him.

He knew their relationship left her vulnerable, Hermione often overly zealous in her protection of her friends and their relationship only fuelled her further. Since he had returned to his adult self he had questioned their relationship, wondering whether what had started as something so innocent was tainted by the reality of their situation. He could not push aside his love for her, not even the twenty years that separated them dulling the feelings that had taken him almost a year before but he wanted to keep her safe. With a sigh he swung his legs out of the bed and got to his feet, swaying slightly as his injuries once more exerted themselves upon him. He wished once more he could speak to his nineteen-year-old self, tell the foolish boy that he was to refuse the mark when it was offered to him but he knew that no amount of potion induced regression or the application of a time turner could stop the fate that had befallen him.

Resigned to whatever the path was yet to bring him, Severus dressed in his customary black and headed towards the door of his room. He knew he had promised Hermione not to stir but the oppression of the dungeons was to great upon him and he knew the school would be amassed in the hall for breakfast, leaving the grounds clear. Leaving his rooms, he strode down the dank corridors of the dungeons, careful not to limp and give away that there was anything wrong with him. He quickly reached the ground floor and headed to the main doors, stepping out into the chill morning air and breathing in the clean scent of the breeze that he had missed during his enforced exile. Pulling his coat tighter around him he headed off towards the lake, knowing he could lose himself in the scenery rather than the thoughts that were plaguing him.

xxxx

Hermione had joined Severus in his rooms as soon as lunchtime had passed, making excuses to her friends that she had a lot to work on and needed some time to herself. It hadn't all been a lie, she did have more homework than them to work on but she ensured her door was locked in case they came looking for her and wondered who's company she was keeping in place of theirs. Severus had been waiting for her when she arrived, his work already spread out on a desk to the side of his living room. Work ethic winning out over her at seeing him so studiously employed, Hermione had swiftly kissed him before settling herself on the rug beside the fire and burying herself in her work. The silence that surrounded them was comfortable and Hermione barely looked up as she heard him move from his desk after several hours, and spoke only to thank him as he set a cup of tea in front of her.

So engrossed was she in her Potions essay that on instinct, as she stumbled on a particular theory, she stuck her hand in the air as she worried the end of her quill between her teeth. After several moments unheeded she raised her gaze, her eyes meeting Severus' as he sat in the chair before her, his amused smile barely hidden at her actions.

"Can I help you Miss Granger?" he said, marking his place in the book he was reading and setting it on the small table beside him.

Hermione looked up at her raised hand and smiled as she lowered it, "Sorry, force of habit," she said, "I'm a little stuck."

"My Hermione doesn't get stuck," said Severus.

"I do when its extra credit for my Potions NEWT," she said, "You see I knew this handsome boy once who could make the most difficult potion unravel before him but he's not around so much these days."

Severus caught the slight melancholy tone in her voice and extended his hand to her, "Maybe I can help then."

Hermione picked up her book and got to her feet, moving to perch on the arm of the chair. She held her book out to him, open on the page and leaned back as she waited for him to read it over. She was shocked as he didn't immediately turn to the book but instead reached into his breast pocket and drew out a slim pair of glasses. As if he sensed her eyes on him he turned to her with a rueful smile.

"The trials of age my dear," he said, putting them on, "Though I admit you won't have seen them, I am a little too vain to wear them in front of my students. At this time of the evening however I'm forced to put vanity to one side."

"I think," said Hermione tracing the thin wire frame with a finger, "That they look very distinguished."

"I think you need them more than I do then," said Severus though Hermione saw the slight smile that stayed on his features.

Before he could turn his attention to the book Hermione slipped off the arm of the chair and onto his lap, curling one arm around is neck as she threw her legs over the opposite arm. Severus froze for a moment, the unexpected move reminding him that he was not just helping a student but it was so reminiscent of their times together when they were both students that he settled her more comfortably before he turned to the book.

"Show me how far you've got along with this then," he said, "And then we can unravel the rest together."

The evening soon passed them by, Hermione completing her homework before she led Severus from his chair onto the sofa, immediately curling into his side as she had so often in the Gryffindor common room. He had discarded his thick black frock coat and had summoned a blanket from his bedroom beyond to cover them with and Hermione was quite content to settle with her head against his chest as they watched the flames dance in the fireplace. Their conversation was light, Severus enquiring after their friends once more and glad when Hermione had mentioned that Réglisse had found a new protector in Neville. Hermione briefly excused herself to use the bathroom and returned to find the table laid with supper, finger food she noticed to disguise how many were dining but she was glad at the silent invitation he had given her to stay.

As the evening wore on they returned once more to their shared embrace however Hermione was no longer content with the warmth and the silence, her hands questing to the buttons of Severus' shirt but he thwarted her attempt to undo them. At her question he pleaded the extent of the injuries he still bore and Hermione backed down in concern, worry replacing all else in her eyes. He finally convinced her that he did not require a trip to see Madam Pomfrey but she was tentative with him afterwards, fussing over each move he made and desperately trying to persuade him to bed to rest. He finally relented to her last request but was shocked when, instead of leaving him as he kissed her by the fireside, she took his hand and led him into the bedroom. He began to protest as she had started to undress but the crestfallen look on her face forced him to back pedal and he soon found himself beside her in the bed.

She had quickly fallen asleep in his arms and he allowed himself to lose himself in the scent of her hair but the voice in his mind would not leave him, reminding him the danger that he posed if he let her remain at his side. When sleep finally came it was tortured, his dreams filled with images of Hermione's demise but for all the pain it caused him he could still not bring himself to push her away.

Monday morning dawned early for the pair of them and Hermione retreated quickly to her room, leaving Severus with a kiss and a promise to return to him that evening before he could protest. He had dressed in his teaching robes, the material at once too heavy and stifling for him even in the chill of the dungeons but it was more the thought of the day that plagued him. He had not faced the school since his return on Friday night and he knew so many faces would be turned to him in hatred. He knew he would sit at the high table and look down at those of Gryffindor house, remembering when he was one of them and missing all the friends who now hated him. He knew he would see Harry's face, see the loathing in the deep green eyes that were so like his mother's, and be reminded once more of James and the pain that acquaintance had so often borne him. He was only grateful that Monday saw him with only first, third and fifth years for Dark Arts class but even that did not fill him with any joy, knowing that he would be called upon to hector and terrify his students rather than instruct them. Even when he had taught Potions he had at least ensured his students had learned something.

If Severus thought that Monday was bad the rest of the week proved what a joy it had truly been. His first lesson with the sixth year Gryffindors and Slytherins had been a trial to say the least, especially when Page had stepped back, clearly testing his loyalties over his former friends. Harry had of course risen to the challenge of facing him and Severus felt every barb he directed at the boy as though he had set it on himself. He had not spared a single one of his friends and had cursed when Hermione has instinctively answered a question when the class had remained silent. His tirade against her and the subsequent point loss had all but brought tears to her eyes and he longed to reach out to her but they had a façade to maintain and she would have to grow used to it.

As Thursday came to a close he was glad to be facing the weekend, able to lock himself away in his rooms in silence and safety but the growing tingle in his left arm soon grew to an agonising pain and he was forced to hurry from the great hall as Voldemort's summons began to act upon him. It was late when he finally stumbled back down the long dank corridor to the fireplace in his rooms, thankfully not bearing any physical marks from his encounter with the Dark Lord but his mind was greatly troubled. He had seen the faces of some of the people who had met with Voldemort before he had and knew one in particular was feeling the orders he had imparted keenly. He had remained with the Death Eaters for several hours rather than returning to the school, ingratiating himself with them in the hope of re-establishing the trust he had lost. He gained some ground he was sure and made sure before he left that he well publicised his future plans.

He tapped the bricks in the wall that rose up to meet him in the corridor and they parted slowly to reveal the room beyond, the fire was unlit but the candles were, illuminating the figure curled on the sofa wrapped in his teaching robe. The flickering light was low, casting deep red shadows over the sleeping girl, highlighting her hair in honeyed tones and bringing out the youthful blush on her lips and cheeks. He stepped from the fireplace but moved no further, leaning back against the mantle as he allowed himself an unguarded moment of watching her. When he had first met Hermione Granger he had been faced with a bushy haired know-it-all with a voice that cut if ignored; but he knew the woman before him was far from the child that had first graced Hogwarts' halls. Even dressed in her uniform, still apparent beneath the cover of his robe, she looked more like temptation than the forbiddance she should have been.

He felt a longing rise in him, a familiar feeling whenever he was with her, but a longing that had remained unanswered since he had first returned to the school to tell her of his renewal of his duties as a spy. He clenched a fist at his side, resisting the desire to cross to her and kiss her awake before allowing the kiss to lead to whatever its natural conclusion was. Since his permanent return to the school Hermione had been his nightly companion but he had refrained from anything but an almost platonic kiss as he persuaded her to bed. She had not been as cooperative he would have wanted and, once the initial excuse of his injuries had begin to wear, he had found himself forcing himself to stay awake long enough for her to begin to droop against his shoulder, too exhausted to do anything but fall asleep beside him in the bed.

He knew his refusal of her did nothing to keep her safe but he was too weak to do anything more. He knew he should push her away, especially in light of the news he had received from Voldemort but try as he might he could not and so he fell back on the semblance of propriety alone. He was her teacher, she was his student; he was in love with her, she was his betrothed. The two relationships should never have mixed but he could not stop either from continuing.

Finally he left the fireplace and crossed to the sofa, bending down and easing her into his arms. Hermione stirred as he began to lift her, blinking up him before she smiled, curling her arms up around his neck as she snuggled into him, losing the robe as he lifted her fully into his arms and began to carry her towards the bedroom.

"I saw you leave the great hall," she said, sleepily, "You were holding your left arm funny. You've been with Voldemort haven't you?"

"I have to go when he calls," said Severus as they crossed the threshold to the bedroom.

"Are you hurt?" she said, struggling slightly as though she was trying to avoid hurting him.

He hushed her as he firmed his grip, letting her know that she wasn't harming him, "I was swift tonight and he was in a good mood, the majority escaped unscathed," he said, "You did not have to wait for me."

Hermione smiled at him as he sat her down on the bed and knelt at her feet, gently removing her shoes, "I'm meant to be looking after you," she said as his thumb traced a pattern against her ankle.

"You've worn yourself out and you have to focus on your exams," said Severus, "I don't want to see you falling asleep in my classes."

Hermione laughed, "Heaven forbid that I give you anymore reason to take points off," she said before she took his hand, encouraging him to sit beside her on the bed.

She leant against him, her tiredness refusing to leave her, and buried her face against his shoulder. Severus wrapped an arm around her, content just to hold her much as he knew she would be far better off in a proper position to sleep. He pressed a kiss to her hair and rocked her gently, willing her to the sleep she so clearly needed. Hermione however seemed determined to stay awake though her voice was quiet.

"I can't wait until tomorrow," she said.

"Is there something happening?" said Severus.

Hermione smiled, "Its Friday," she said as though it explained everything, "As soon as that final bell rings you're mine for the entire weekend."

"I'm afraid I must disappoint you there," he said, "As soon as classes end tomorrow I have to leave and will return Sunday morning at the very earliest."

Hermione raised her head from his shoulder, a pretty pout taking her face at the news, "Where do you have to go?"

"Spinners End," said Severus. "I have some business to attend to there."

Hermione instantly brightened, "Then take me with you. I won't be missed; the boy's have Quidditch training all day Saturday and then everyone will be in Hogsmeade on Sunday," she said, "I'd love to see your house and I promise I won't be in the way. Just point me towards the books and you won't here a peep from me until you want to."

Severus shook his head, "I cannot take you with me," he said, "Even if what I was going to do wouldn't put you in danger there remains the fact that should I take you out of school during term time I would be acting in loco parentis and that's not exactly appropriate given our situation."

Hermione stiffened in his arms at his words, "Given our… oh heaven forbid Severus that I should be able to take account for myself if we set foot out of the grounds," she said, "Don't you dare give me that in loco parentis rubbish. You're responsible for me here too you know, if you're determined to see yourself as my teacher, and yet you're quite happy for me to share your bed every night. We are not student and teacher Severus, they're just the roles we're playing in this pantomime we've worked ourselves into."

"Even with Hogwarts aside, as a part of the Order…"

"You've not been part of the Order for over a year," said Hermione, "Stop looking for excuses and just admit that you don't want me there."

"You know that's not true."

"Isn't it?" said Hermione, freeing herself from his arms and getting to her feet, "Then what's stopping you? Can't be seen with me? Worried I'll do something stupid or is it the fact that that's where you and Lily used to spend your time? Wouldn't want to taint those memories by bringing me there now would we?"

Severus' eyes darkened, "Don't you dare bring her into this," he said, "She has nothing to do with this."

"Then tell me why you won't take me with you?"

"Can't you see that I'm trying to protect you?" said Severus, "And if you stopped behaving like a wilful child for two seconds together you would realise that."

"Wilful child?" said Hermione before her expression hardened, "Right."

Severus looked on in confusion as she stomped into her shoes, "What are you doing?"

"Leaving," said Hermione, "Its hardly appropriate for you to have such a wilful child in your bedroom, Professor."

"Hermione, wait," he said, reaching for her sleeve but she dodged him easily and headed towards the living room, "Don't leave like this."

Hermione ignored his plea even as he began to follow her, hurrying her footsteps as he caught up with her and took hold of her arm. Severus pulled her gently to a halt, his free hand coming to her cheek as he tried to pacify her.

"Darling stop, there's no need for this," he said, "Let me explain."

Hermione's expression softened for a second but then her eyes hardened and she pushed his hand away and pulled out of his grip, "No," she said, "I'm fed up with this. All hot and cold. Don't think I haven't noticed that you've made every excuse under the sun not to be with me, so if you've lost interest I'd rather you tell me now. After our story I'm not so tainted by association and Cormac's been looking, he wouldn't be giving me excuses."

Severus paled, "Don't say things like that," he said, "You don't mean it."

"Don't I?" said Hermione, "Then give me a reason not to mean it. Tell me that there's some reason behind this game you seem to be playing with me."

"I'm trying to protect you," said Severus.

"By acting like my parent?" said Hermione stepping back until she was inside the fireplace, taking hold of a handful of floo powder, "That's not the relationship I thought we were in."

She went to throw the powder down into the grate but paused, her eyes meeting his and seeing the hurt there.

"I love you," she said softly, "But you need to work out want you want. I won't come down here again, not until you send for me and then I need to know what you expect from me."

"Hermione…" he said, reaching out to her but she shook her head.

"Think about it," she said, "Take the weekend and come to me when you've decided."

Without a word of goodbye she tossed the floo powder into the grate and gave the direction of her room, disappearing with the pull of the magic. Severus stood staring at the place she had been standing, a myriad of emotions rushing at him as he realised just how silent the room was without her in it. He wanted to follow but he knew it would do no good, she had walked away from him and following with no answer for her would prove useless.

He took a shuddering breath and stepped away from the hearth. He picked up his teaching robe from where it had been discarded on the sofa and threw it on. Heading to the door he extinguished the lights and stepped into the corridors beyond, refusing the shiver at the chill that set immediately into his bones. He hurried through the corridors, glad it was late enough that the students were in bed and very few dared to venture in the corridors with both Filch and several Aurors patrolling the halls at night. He soon reached his destination and gave the password to the stone gargoyle he encountered. The stairs rose and he stepped onto them, allowing them to carry him up to his destination.

He didn't bother to knock, instead stepping into the room with a flourish of robes but the figure sat behind the desk before him did not startle at the intrusion.

"You're back," said Dumbledore, "Is it as we feared?"

Severus nodded, "I must away tonight," he said, "There are things I have to do. Things are as we feared and I've already put our plan in motion. I made it known that I would be home this weekend but if I go a day earlier and make it known I'm there then fears may be more likely to work in our favour."

Dumbledore nodded, "I'm sure Irina will manage in your absence," he said with a small smile, "Would you like me to get word to Miss Granger?"

"If you would," said Severus, his tone wavering as a moment of doubt as to whether she would care struck him "Tell her not to worry. Tell her I will return by Sunday if I can."

Dumbledore regarded him quizzically, "I trust all is well between the pair of you?"

"Things are complex," said Severus before he remembered why his life had once more been thrown into that complexity, "See that she receives the message."

"Severus," said Dumbledore, his tone stopping the younger wizard as he turned to the door, "If something is troubling you…"

Severus turned with a glare, "If something is troubling me? Voldemort's rise to power. The task we know he will have given to someone who, despite many faults, is an innocent. What you want me to do to protect him and Harry. The fact that I was sixteen years old less than two months ago and now I'm faced everyday by the man I'd almost forgotten I had once become," he said, "Pick one."

"I appreciate your difficulties, my boy," said Dumbledore, "But we are all instruments in this and must do what we can so that what is right prevails. I'm sure you can find confidence enough in Miss Granger."

Pain lanced through Severus as his mind turned immediately to the disagreement they had had, "I will not burden her," he said, "She has enough to focus on with her exams."

"You and I both know that NEWT exams will not tax Miss Granger, they would not have taxed her had she sat them in her second year," said the older wizard, "You are not worried about her exams."

Severus wanted to speak, to pour out all that troubled him but his memory reminded him once more that his trust had been misplaced in the man before him one too many times, "See that Hermione receives the message," he said turning back to the door, "I will return on Sunday."

He did not wait for Dumbledore to speak again but strode out of the large office and down the stairs once more. It did not take him long to return to the dungeons and he had soon collected up all he would need to be away from the school for several nights. He stepped into the fireplace and for a moment toyed with the thought of going to Hermione but, putting aside the danger of appearing unannounced in her room where her friends could be with her, he knew he needed to wait until he had an answer for her before he went to her. He tapped the bricks and the back of the fireplace fell away to reveal the passageway behind.

He followed the dreary passage upwards and pushed the door open, stepping out into the grounds. The air was frigid and there were flakes of snow in the air, the clouds threatening more. He hugged his robe tighter around himself with a frown, snow in Scotland meaning freezing rain further south and he almost turned back but he knew he had to be found at home. Without a second thought he span into an apparition, coming to rest in a familiar dark alley way that had become a favoured point for him over the years, the desolate nature of the streets around it leaving it devoid of muggles.

The night was dark and the air filled with rain so fine it seemed to reach his bones even before it had a chance to soak his clothes. He shrugged off his teaching robe and stuffed it into the bag he had slung over his shoulder, his clothes somewhat odd in the muggle-world but not strange enough to attract too much attention. He left the alley and headed into the familiar streets, memories both good and bad, assaulting him as he walked at a pace that was dictated by the rain. It was only several streets over until he reached his own, the road sign greying and chipped, the screws looking as though one strong wind would disrupt them and send the sign tumbling down the street.

A car stood on bricks against the kerb and he was forced to slide passed another that had been parked to high on the pavement, its tax disc several years out of date. He often cursed that he set his wards so high that he couldn't apparate directly into his house but as he reached a crossroads between the dark terraced houses he was reminded why he always took the walk. In the distance down the bisecting road and across the desolate railway tracks he could make out the lights of the elegant estate of homes he had once been a frequent visitor to. He could vividly remember the path that led to the charming red brick house with its neat front lawn and driveway. He remembered how he had always admired the shiny black paint on the door, offset by the brass knocker. Beyond had been a house filled with love and colour, pictures on the walls and always a hot meal on the table. He had felt at home despite how odd he had looked in the surroundings, Lily's parents accepting him with open arms when she had first taken him home, shabby and unkempt as he was.

He paused, remembering when he had followed first Lily's mother's coffin and then her father's from the house, one of many faceless mourners. He had heard so many of their friends comforting each other with thoughts that at least the couple would be reunited with their lost daughter but for Severus it had been the greatest wrench, his adopted family completely decimated even though he had not seen them since Lily's death. He remembered the desolation he had felt then, his own mother dead, Lily murdered and her parents taken far too young in their grief for their child, the empty feeling in his stomach that refused to leave him for many years. It had only left him when he had first felt a shadow fall over him in the grounds of Hogwarts mere days after his regression, looking up to see the concerned eyes of Hermione Granger.

It had taken a long time but he had soon found himself part of a family once more, his odd bunch of siblings in Harry and the Weasleys, an adopted sister in Minerva, a father in Dumbledore and a dozen or so uncles and aunts in the teachers he had once been a colleague too. He smiled as he thought of the one person who stood out far above all them, the beautiful young woman who had given more meaning to his life than he had known even with the youthful love he had lost too soon. Situation had caused all of his new family to dwindle apart from her and he felt, as distanced as he was from her, the connection that still burned brightly.

He turned his eyes away from the path he had once trodden daily, heading once more towards his own home despite the sudden urge that rose in him to return to the school and seek out the girl that now dominated his thoughts. He barely noticed the continually falling rain however as he neared the run of houses that his was connected to he began to feel the familiar anxiety that always accompanied his homecoming, many years without its reason being present incapable of removing the feeling. He walked the line of houses until he reached the one on the end, the grey building seemingly propping up its neighbours from falling into the alleyway next to it. He approached the door and lowered the wards with practiced ease, pushing the door opened with a resounding slam as though trying to dispel any demon that could be within.

No demon greeted him but he still viewed what did with disdain as the ungainly figure of Peter Pettigrew shuffled into the hallway.

"Snape?" he simpered, "I was not expecting your return until tomorrow."

Severus tried as best he could not to sneer at the whimpering creature before him, his presence forced upon him by Voldemort almost as soon as he had been let out of his sight and trusted again. He was not stupid enough though not to realise that Pettigrew was also there to be his jailor, the man without a doubt reporting back to the Dark Lord every movement Severus made away from the school.

"I did not realise I was required to explain my comings and goings to you Wormtail," said Severus, pushing past him and into the house, "I am back and I expect you to stay out of my way whilst I am here."

"Of course," said the other man but there was little genuflection in his voice.

Severus ignored him, pausing to shrug off his coat and hang it on the empty coat rack. He heard Wormtail scamper off back into the house but paid him no mind as the house seemed to make itself the key feature of his attention. Other than Hogwarts, the tiny house at Spinners End had been the only home he had ever known, his birth in the main bedroom upstairs from where he stood the beginning of his history within the peeling walls. For as long as he had known the house had been cold and grey and filled with too many corners. He hated the corners of the house the most.

It was not the most rational of hatreds he knew but he hated them all the same, the corners of his house bearing some of the worst memories he had. He remembered the corner by the front door where he had cowered at three years old, unable to reach the latch to escape as his father's rage went from words to fists, the blows rained down on his mother rather than him but paining him all the same. The corner in the basement where his mother had cradled him, hiding from the drunken rampage that was raging above them. The corner in the living room where his father had forced him to stand, facing the peeling paper for hours on end and where he'd been thrown after he'd near fainted from hunger, his arm badly broken and left untreated for days. The corner in the tiny kitchen where his father had finally fallen, Severus' fist rather than his magic punishing the man who had terrorised him for years. The corner in the master bedroom where he'd found his mother slumped, half dead from the illness that she had kept hidden from him. The corner where he'd stood and cried when she had finally been taken from him, the finally blow that had sent him into the service of the Dark Lord.

Severus shook his head, forcing away the onslaught of the memories the house invoked. He forewent any further tour of the house, finding little need to enter any of the cramped downstairs rooms, instead turning to the stairs and heading up them. He didn't bother to light any candles, knowing the route by heart and preferring not to shed any light upon the neglected hallways. He passed the door to his childhood room, now housing his unwelcome guest and headed into the master room. He had only made it his own when he had reached his twenties and had begun teaching at Hogwarts, feeling a need after all the turmoil he had gone through to at least feel as though he was master in his own home.

The room looked barely lived in, everything of value to him housed in his rooms at Hogwarts but it did well enough for when he was forced to come home. He rubbed his eyes as the late hour overcame him and sat down on the edge of the bed to unlace his shoes, letting them fall with an audible thump onto the wooden floor. Standing once more he shrugged off his clothes, pausing only briefly to ensure the sheets were free of dust with a spell. He slipped beneath the covers before he leant down and caught up his trousers from the floor, reaching into the pocket and taking out a neatly folded piece of card. He opened it carefully, revealing the Muggle photograph within. He was unsure why it was his favourite picture, he had dozens more that showed both him and his partner in the picture in a more flattering light but it had been the first to be taken when he had felt truly happy and it had therefore lodged itself firmly in the loftiest place of his esteem. He and Hermione sat side by side in a small Muggle pub in Oxford, the room behind them decorated for Christmas as the revellers celebrated the eve of the festival.

Severus smiled at the picture, wondering how none had realised how in love with the girl beside him he already was in that moment. He was not even looking at the camera but at the girl beside him, watching her laugh at her father's failing attempts to correctly operate the device. He reached up around his neck to take hold of the pendant that hung there, the images of both a snake and a lion reflected in the glass. He allowed himself a small smile, knowing he would go immediately to Hermione on his return to the school and make amends for their disagreement. With happier thoughts than had brought him home he returned the picture to his pocket before settling into the bed, imagining that she lay beside him still and the thought alone took him into sleep.

xxxx

Magic was a wondrous thing or so Hermione thought as she woke to find her room frosty in the early morning light. With a wave of her wand the fire in the hearth leapt into life and the room immediately warmed. She finally dared to venture from beneath the covers, reaching for her dressing gown as the thin white shirt she wore offered little in the way of warmth. She had known when she had gone to bed that warmer pyjamas would have been a wiser idea but Severus' shirt had been the more romantic choice, the days since his departure from the school seeming far too numerous.

She had realised something was wrong when she had arrived at breakfast on Friday morning and Severus' seat at the high table was empty. She had tried to catch Dumbledore's eye but failed on every attempt and fear had begun to rise in her. She had been moving blindly to class when Filch had stopped her and informed her that Dumbledore wished to speak to her. She had barely contained her relief but had waved off her friends with the belief that she needed to speak with him about her additional classes. She had all but run to his office and crashed through the door with a demand for news. Dumbledore's news had not been completely comforting but at least she was aware that Severus had left of his own free will rather than at the summons of the Dark Mark if not aware of the business he went for. She knew she would have to wait until Severus' return on the Sunday, if Dumbledore was to be believed, to find out the nature of his travels but she was contented that he was safe.

She had been somewhat disturbed when Dumbledore had further detained her but his questions were nothing to do with her schooling. She kept her silence as he enquired too deeply about her relationship with Severus, knowing for him to be questioning her Severus would not have answered him in detail enough. Finally he had dismissed her back to her classes but Hermione maintained her silence throughout the day, citing fatigue as an excuse to her friends when they questioned her and retiring early to bed. She had gone down to the stands in the cold, snowy morning that brought in the weekend, happy to watch her friends as they trained for the forthcoming Quidditch match.

She fell into conversation now and then with several of her fellow spectators but more often than not she sat in silence, her mind not seeing the players before her but replaying a match that was flooded in summer light when it had been a young, black haired boy in the role of keeper. Although Ron did admirably in his training he lacked the grace that Severus had shown in the role. She had reached for the ring that hung on the chain around her neck, tracing the stones as her heart had clenched at the thought of him. She knew she had hurt him when she had left him but she needed to give him time to decide what he wanted from her. She had been aware from very early in his return that he was reluctant to return to the more intimate aspects of their relationship but she had hoped that it would fade. When it had not she had tried to understand what was keeping him from her but the answer alluded her. She had wanted to maintain what they had but it had proved too hard and she had left him with the ultimatum; it was up to him where their relationship went. She could only hope that he came back to her with a favourable response.

Sunday had dawned as she found it, the snow thick on the ground and the cold in the room chilling her through Severus' thin shirt. Despite the cold and the snow, sunlight filtered through the window and Hermione found herself glad that she would be venturing to Hogsmeade with her friends. She knew she had been neglectful of them all and felt a pang at how much she was forced to conceal from them. She briefly clutched at the pendant around her neck before she readied herself for the day, determined that her attention would be on her two best friends, knowing she would receive her answer from Severus later in the day.

Harry and Ron had clearly been surprised by her when she had all but bounced into the Great Hall for breakfast but the surprise turned to contentment at having their friend restored to them, the three of them falling swiftly back into the banter that had always been the mainstay of their friendship.

They had finally braved the cold for the walk into Hogsmeade, all of them well wrapped up in Molly Weasley's warm if bulky knitted scarves. As they walked talk turned to there lessons and then once more to the subject of Harry's beloved Potions book, the identity of the Half Blood Prince still a mystery to the two boys. Hermione realised that she had yet to quiz Severus on the subject and when Harry and Ron turned to her for enlightenment she managed to cover by saying she had gone to the library but found no mention of any princes in the wizarding world, half-blood or otherwise. They seemed content that she had at least tried, the pursuit of the library a common trait in her and meeting with no suspicion.

Their conversation was cut short as they saw their Potions Master and Charms Professor speaking on the bridge that led into the town, Flitwick clearly beating a hasty retreat for the fear of being forced to endure Slughorn's endless ramblings in the Three Broomsticks. Hermione had always been quite fond of the Potions Master's propensity to chatter but she knew that often it would merely be background noise as she worked on the potions set in their private lessons and therefore of little burden to listen to. Her friends however had never seemed overly keen of their aging professor so she was surprised when Harry, on hearing that Slughorn was heading to the pub, requested of both her and Ron to join him for a drink.

The Three Broomsticks was busy with the residents of the village and the elder Hogwarts students that were allowed to frequent the establishment. Harry hurriedly chose them a table and all but arranged them around it, seemingly wanting to keep Slughorn in view. Hermione paid it little mind, quite used to the eccentricities of her friend especially if he felt their was a conspiracy to be had and obliged him, ordering their drinks when one of the tavern hands came to them.

Their butterbeers were barely on the table when Ron groaned at something over Hermione's shoulder. Hermione turned to see Ginny and Dean Thomas sat side by side, far too engrossed with one another to notice what was going on around them. It amused her how perturbed Ron grew at the sight of them holding hands and admonished him on the fact only to bite her lip as she turned back to see the couple in question proceed on to a rather unguarded kiss in full view of them. It was Harry's pained expression though that hurt her more than Ron's childish reaction and she tried to ease the tension with a quip. At the mention of Ginny's reaction if she were to look over and see Ron kissing his long time friend Hermione had hoped to reduce the table to laughter or at least a display of disgust from Ron that would distract him from his sister however the blush that Ron could barely hide confused and troubled her.

She had never been more grateful for the arrival of one of her professors as Slughorn's voice boomed out behind her. Harry was immediately on his feet and began speaking to the old wizard in a way Hermione had never heard him use before. Slughorn was clearly slightly inebriated and glad of the audience as he rambled on however when the inebriation passed to his hand Hermione barely dodged the ale that fell from his tankard towards her lap. She busied herself in wiping away a few drops that had fallen onto her jeans as Harry continued to listen to his teacher unperturbed. Hermione heard the mention of a supper party, Harry swiftly receiving an invite before Slughorn turned to her with the same offer that she was too curious and polite to refuse.

Ron was the first to call Harry on his apparent affection for their Potions Master but Harry soon passed on his reasons, Dumbledore having set him the task of getting to know Slughorn but without any further reason. Hermione felt a jolt at the unblemished trust her friend showed in their headmaster, feeling once more the pang of the old man's deceit and wishing she could speak of it. Severus had never mentioned any need for Harry to better know Slughorn and she filed the question away in her mind in the hope of putting it to him when she saw him.

Ginny and Dean finally made their way from the pub and the three of them returned to happier conversations, distractions finally removed from them. Of course Harry brought the talk back round to his suppositions on Draco but Hermione indulged the boys in their wild plots, happy to be spending time with them regardless of the subject matter. They ate lunch but when talk moved to venturing to the shops that littered the village they all looked out of the window with trepidation at the swirling snow and they all silently agreed that the school would prove far warmer than the streets of Hogsmeade.

They began the walk back with the same good humour they had had in the pub and Hermione felt very grateful that they could still enjoy such moments when so much was at stake. She was about to tell them as much when they heard a scream from ahead of them, two girls from their own house seeming to be the source. They looked on to see one of them on the ground, Katie Bell, the Quidditch teams best seeker lying prone in the snow. Before they could react she was thrown bodily across the path, her bones cracking at the unnatural positions she was forced into before she was lifted into the air. Her neck was bent back too far and her face was set in an agonising silent scream for what seemed like hours to the dumbstruck students gathered below but it was nothing to the sickening thud that came when she fell back to the ground, her body twitching with the after affects of the curse.

Hermione was about the run to her aid when a voice stopped her, Hagrid stepping from behind them with clear instructions that they knew better than not to follow. The half-giant gently picked up the stricken girl before hastening them all to follow him. They all did as he asked and followed him back to the castle, the spectacle having drawn quite a crowd as they reached the gates. McGonagall was the first of their teachers to see them and she hurried Hagrid to the hospital wing before ushering the remaining witnesses into her classroom. She swiftly removed the package Harry carried from his possession, keeping as much distance from it as she could whilst her wand did the work. An elegant necklace was set amongst its velvet packaging but something in the air around it seemed entirely unholy that they all kept their distance from it.

McGonagall headed to the classroom door, calling for one of the ghosts to attend her, the Bloody Baron the first to answer her call. She spoke quietly to the spirit before he disappeared back into the walls, leaving her to return to her charges. She questioned them all but their came no clear answer, Katie having returned with the package and a determination to deliver it to the Headmaster. She swiftly dismissed Katie's companion but kept Hermione and her friends on hand, her expression particularly troubled.

"Why is it when something happens it is always you three?" she said in exasperation.

Hermione almost wanted to laugh, often wondering the same but it was Ron who vocalised it, the humour at least dispelling some of the tension in the room. McGonagall's gaze raised above their heads and Hermione felt herself freeze as the older woman spoke.

"Oh Severus," she said, her tone somewhat pinched, "I didn't know who else to send for."

Hermione dared not turn for fear of giving herself away but she was sure all those gathered could hear the thumping of her heart. She heard his footsteps before he brushed passed her, forcing Ron from his path as he did so. Hermione felt her heart clench as he didn't even look at her but she knew he was maintaining the façade they were forced to hold to. He spoke quietly with McGonagall at the front of the class, bent over the necklace, their words too soft to decipher. He finally straightened and retrieved his wand, levitating the necklace from its case and turning it this way and that to better study it.

The necklace seemed to hiss with the power of the spell, protesting against being so studied. Hermione watched as Severus' whole form tensed in his studies, clearly disturbed by the power manifested before him.

"What do you think?" said McGonagall, her hand clenched at her side as she clearly resisted the more common impulse to reach out to her former friend.

"I think," said Severus in the most measured tone he could muster, "That Miss Bell is very lucky to be alive."

"She was cursed wasn't she?" said Harry, his tone for once not vicious or accusatory towards his teacher, "I know Katie and she wouldn't hurt a fly. If she was delivering that to Professor Dumbledore she wasn't doing it knowingly."

McGonagall conceded the truth in Harry's words and Hermione felt a chill go up her spine at the thought but it was Harry's words that truly alarmed her.

"It was Malfoy," he said, with no doubt in his tone.

Both teachers turned in shock at the accusation but Hermione could see the dread in Severus' eyes that he couldn't fully hide. She wanted to reach out to him, knowing the thought that they had been so close to danger was troubling him but she could not. She watched on in agony as he was forced once more to hector Harry rather than speak to him as he longed to, his words barbed and cutting rather than enquiring. McGonagall swiftly dismissed them but Hermione caught Severus' eye as she turned to leave and knew the instruction that lay in them.

They returned to the common room and Hermione was for once glad that Harry and Ron were embroiled in their accusations against anyone who had ever set foot in Slytherin house. She slipped quietly into her room, locking the door behind her before she all but ran to the fireplace. She extinguished the flames and stepped inside, activating the floo and soon finding herself in the larger grate of Severus' rooms. The room was dark but she knew he would not be long. She paced the rug before the fire, unable to settle as so many thoughts fought for dominance in her head.

She heard the door to his chambers open before he strode in, his eyes immediately falling on her, sparked with concern. Hermione smiled at the sight of him but he did not return it and instead of the embrace she expected she found herself taken forcibly by the arms as she was forced to stand on tiptoes to meet his gaze.

"What on Earth do you think you are doing getting yourself involved with curses like that?" he demanded, "Have you any idea what that could have done to you? To any of you? What were you thinking?"

"It wasn't deliberate," she said, feeling tears spring to her eyes at his rage, "We were leaving Hogsmeade and we saw what happened to Katie, what were we meant to do? We couldn't just stand by. We were careful, Hagrid told us to be careful. We didn't touch the necklace, just the wrappers. We didn't know what had happened."

Severus seemed to calm slightly, his grip loosening as his gaze fell to his feet. Hermione let her feet rest more comfortably on the floor, her own hands coming up to grip his forearms, feeling the tension there.

"Forgive me," he said sadly, "I'd barely returned when the Bloody Baron came for me and told me what happened. Katie is such a dear, sweet girl and for her to be hurt in such a way… then to find you so near to it. Forgive me, I panicked. Every day I worry for your safety and today compounded how little I can do to protect you."

"Hush," said Hermione, taking his face in her hands, "I'm well and safe and so are Harry and Ron, we were not in harm's way. I'm sorry if we frightened you. For once we didn't go looking for trouble."

"Yet trouble finds you," said Severus, his gaze weary as it met hers, "That curse was so dangerous."

"I know, it was terrible seeing what it did to Katie," said Hermione, "Who would have done such a thing?"

"Your friend seemed to have quite a strong opinion on that scale," said Severus, "Does he realise where accusations like that could get him? Where did he come by such thoughts?"

Hermione shook her head before she took his hand and led him to the sofa, sitting down on it and tugging him beside her, "Harry thinks he saw something before term started. He and Ron saw Malfoy in Borgin and Burkes and Harry's convinced…"

"Convinced of what, Hermione you must tell me," said Severus, "I know Harry hates Malfoy but he would have good reason to say what he did to me today."

"Harry thinks he saw Malfoy being… he saw him with some of the Death Eaters, I think Bellatrix LeStrange was there and Harry now assumes…"

"That Malfoy is a Death Eater too," finished Severus.

Hermione nodded before she met his gaze, "Is he right?"

Severus sighed, his hands tightening on hers, "Malfoy has taken the mark but he is not yet called a Death Eater, he has not yet met the conditions of his initiation."

"And you know what those conditions are, don't you?"

"But I cannot speak of them, not to you, not yet," said Severus, "I said when I first returned that there were things I would need to keep from you and this is one of them."

Hermione lowered her gaze, "I understand."

Severus huffed out a humourless laugh, "But you are put out by it nonetheless," he said, "We once knew all there was to know of one another and now I am forced to conceal much and push your trust in me further than I fear it capable of being stretched. I know this hurts you."

"I just want to be able to help you," said Hermione, "But I feel like you push me away every time I try to."

"Darling, I'm not trying to push you away," said Severus, "I know the fact that I did not take you with me this weekend troubles you but for what I can tell you, the reason I went was that I knew Draco's mother would come to me about the very subject that came out today."

"You knew about the necklace?"

"No but I know about Draco's mark and the task he has been given. I can say little more but Narcissa and I have come to an understanding that may help me prevent more people being hurt than might otherwise be. I have made the unbreakable vow with Narcissa but I must keep the details of that secret from you. I could not take you to my home because I knew there would be Death Eaters there and I would not have been able to hide you. Do not think I did not want you there. I missed you, so very much."

Hermione felt a smile play at her lips at his final words but refused it, instead getting to her feet and removing her hands from his grip, "I know you left me here to protect me but we both know there is more to this than one weekend," she said, "Severus sometimes you can barely look at me. When you hold me its like I'm with Harry or Ron, like a brother. Your kisses are all but platonic, as though they're a duty not a need. You won't touch me, you won't love me. You used to reach for me at night, wake me just so you could love me, now it feels like there is a gulf between us. I know you will always try to protect me but I don't know if you still love me. I asked you to come back to me with an answer, I need you to tell me what that is."

Severus was silent and for a moment Hermione felt as though an answer would never come but then his voice rang out in the silence of the room, lacking its usual authority.

"I have never loved anyone as I love you," he said, "You are the centre of my very being."

"Then why?"

"My whole life has been darkness, lies, deception, dishonesty," he said, "Even that which I have clung to for its purity has been tarnished by its association to me and now here you stand, so innocent, so young."

"I'm not innocent Severus."

"In comparison to me you are," he said, getting to his feet, "Hermione it is hard for me to put this into words but I'm frightened of what will happen to you because of me. I am in a position of responsibility for you, regardless of any arguments to the contrary, I am required to protect you and how can I begin to do that when I break every single rule laid down to me as a teacher."

"Not that old song," said Hermione, feeling her anger rising, "You've played that hand before. All the way through last year, when you were our age every time you wanted to do something that put you in harms way you told us you had never been released from your position as our teacher. Yet those responsibilities didn't seem to bother you when you were taking my virginity."

"Hermione that was different."

"How was that different?" said Hermione, "You said you were our teacher then, you say you're our teacher now. How is this different?"

"Because then I wasn't looking over my shoulder every two minutes knowing what will happen and not being able to stop it. I wasn't forced to lie to the people I love. I wasn't forced to play this god-awful role, day and night being someone I'm not. Back then I was free, I shared your burdens but mine were no greater. I was so full of dreams, of hope and that came crashing down around me because someone I thought I could trust betrayed me. If I had strength enough to do it I would push you away so completely but I'm weak and I love you so I give you this half-life that is cruelty to both you and me. I look at you and I see the most wonderful girl I have ever known, a girl who has seen so much and yet still sees the world through favourable eyes. Why would I not want to keep that near me?"

Hermione felt the tears running down her cheeks as she watched him breaking, "I don't understand," she said, "Do you want me to walk away, is that why you're doing this? I don't want to hurt you so if that's what you need, I'll do it but I'll always love you. Do you want me to walk away?"

Severus shook his head, "I need you."

"Then let yourself go. I will not break if you love me. I know I cannot understand all that you've gone through but if you can take comfort in me, then take it," she said, "I'll ask no questions, I won't push you for news, I won't make any demands of your time."

"You would make such sacrifices so willingly I know but I can't ask that of you."

"Yes you can," said Hermione, she said slipping the chain from around her neck and setting the ring from it in his palm before she closed his fingers over it, "You gave me this ring, you asked me to be your wife and with that I take all your trials. Severus I know we are both so altered after what happened this summer but I don't want to be without you."

Severus closed his free hand over their joined ones, "You don't know me."

"Then let me learn, Professor," she said, seeing the small smile he could not keep at her words, "Do you love me Severus?"

"I love you," he said honestly, meeting her gaze.

"And I love you," she said, "That's a foundation at least, we can start from there."

"Start?" he said.

"From the beginning," she said, "We can take this as slowly as you want, fall in love again. I know you feel unworthy and that you put me in danger but I'm in danger anyway. Please give us a chance Severus."

He brought their joined hands to his lips and pressed a kiss to her fingers, "You are such an extraordinary woman," he said, "To put up with me the way you do."

"I'm a sucker for a hopeless case, it seems," she said, resting her palm against his cheek, "We'll take this as slowly as you want. I'll only come when you call but know that you can do so any time."

She raised herself on her toes enough to press her lips to his, glad when she felt his tentative response grow surer when she refused to pull back from him. His arms came around her, holding her tightly against him until she could feel the beating of his heart against her chest. When air became a necessity they broke their embrace but Severus kept her close, his eyes bright with tears as he regarded her.

"I really am a foolish old man."

Hermione giggled, "Less of the old you, that's my fiancé you're denigrating."

"And yet you appear to be without your engagement ring."

"So it would appear," said Hermione, smiling as he took hold of her left hand and held it before him before he slid the delicate ring home once more.

"I know you cannot wear it when it may be seen but when you're here, with me, I want to see you wear it," he said, "It will…remind me, not to be so foolish from now on. You do understand though, why I have been the way I have."

Hermione nodded, "You were wrong but I understand. I forget however much older you look you spent a year being sixteen again, I think that's earned you the right to be a little foolish now and then."

He smiled, "We will take this slowly, rebuild what we've lost," he said, "And I will somehow feel worthy of you again. I will be worthy of you Hermione."

Hermione knew better than to correct him, instead leaning up to kiss him once more knowing that they would rely on her strength to carry them through the coming weeks but that she would bear it as best she could. At first the sound that met her ears didn't stir her but it came instant again and she realised that there was someone knocking on the chamber door. Severus released her before his face fell.

"That will no doubt be Page," he said, "She wanted to speak to me the moment I returned and I was only too grateful for the Baron's interruption."

"Damn Page and her interruptions," said Hermione, "Can I come down after supper? I've missed you so much."

"If I am free I will collect you from your room a half hour after dinner ends," said Severus before the knocking came again, "Now go and fear not for my affections any longer. I am with you."

Hermione kissed him once more before she stepped into the fireplace, offering a smile as her parting gift and receiving his back in return before she spoke the direction for her room. As she stepped out of her own hearth once more she allowed herself another smile, content that whatever happened they would face it together.